Robbie Robertson in Toronto this week. I'm looking for something, that I hope you can never find. If I do find it, I'm afraid I won't have a need to do this any more.
The Toronto-born musician pads around his comfortable hotel room in black slippers, speaks in a lazy but intent baritone, and likes the word "excited" — he uses it a lot during our conversation about storytelling on his new album which came out Tuesday and in his forthcoming autobiography. Robertson's career as a fisherman for things that may not be findable falls into two distinct phases: The first was public to an extreme degree, spent largely on the road touring with Bob Dylan and others, playing shows for nearly 20 years.
The second began with the concert chronicled in The Last Waltz, after which Robertson left the Band, stopped touring and never took it up again.
He's come the closest of any rock royalty to following the example of Glenn Gould, who gave up concerts at the peak of his performing career and only ever played thereafter for a microphone.
Story continues below advertisement Robertson, who spent part of his youth on Ontario's Six Nations reserve and now lives in Beverly Hills, has spent much of the past few decades in the film world, providing soundtracks for several Scorsese films including Raging Bull, Gangs of New York and Shutter Island , signing acts and working on movies for DreamWorks, chronicling the history of the Band, and occasionally surfacing with whatever he's fished up during his private expeditions with a guitar.
A lifetime of trawling those waves recently earned him a place in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, which he'll accept during a ceremony in Toronto tonight. His latest catch is called How to Become Clairvoyant, and it's his first solo record since You might think the title is purely metaphorical, but Robertson also means it literally: With so much behind him, he'd really like to know what's coming, just like Nero and King David and everyone else who prized the advice of seers and prophets.
It's a practical thing, but it comes from spirituality. You could go to synagogue, and it would be really hot in there. As a Hawk, he encountered "all these extraordinary carnival characters" who populated the music scene in the sixties.
Some of those characters flit through the new record, which in spite of its title is strongly oriented toward times past. Its dozen songs touch on Robertson's time in the South, his departure from the Band, and his generation's flamboyant role in the socio-political history of the mid-century. Andy Warhol was so fascinated with her, he would come there looking for her. They would call up to my room and say, 'Mr.
Warhol's in the lobby, and he's wondering: Is Miss Sedgwick in your room? It's one of three volumes he has on the go: He has fielded several pitches from people interested in writing his biography, began collaborating with three of them, but opted out each time. Writing his own books also fulfills, in a new way, his long-standing romance with the written word, conceived when he played Southern schools with Ronnie Hawkins and envied the kids learning things he had skipped over as a high-school dropout.
Musically, his new album shows him standing close to the oak-aged blues-rock he has been crafting most of his life, with some sonically adventurous furnishings by guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and multi-instrumentalist Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. The album's mood and subject matter occasionally evoke Tom Waits, without the junkyard funeral-band sound or rusted-chain scrape of Waits's voice.
Robertson's slight singing voice is just a shade or two heftier than Marlon Brando's in The Godfather, and a much less compelling instrument than his incisive, crying guitar. His fans may be surprised by the mellowness of a few tunes: Fear of Falling, Robertson's duet with Eric Clapton, would fit into many an easy-listening compilation.
In some ways, the record seems addressed to those who already know Robertson's story, who will appreciate small steps taken out of previous pathways, and gaps filled in tales already told. He doesn't feel he has anything to prove, and that in itself is a measure of how the elder Robbie Robertson sees the world and himself. Story continues below advertisement "There's a lack of bravado to Robbie, for someone who has accomplished so much," says long-time friend Reisman.
He has a very natural, engaged relationship with his children, too" — the divorced Robertson has three, who have all settled in Los Angeles — "and what better reflection is there than that? His current production partner is Michael Cohl, the pioneering Canadian stadium-rock promoter who knows a thing or two about seeing around corners.
This is another angle on it altogether, and it has a spiritual quality to it. I'm very excited about it. Robert Everett-Green Robertson, to the letter "The letter that I sent to you, was it lost in the mail? As of this summer, he could ask if that letter had his face on it. Robertson is one of the latest Canadian musicians to have his mug slapped on a stamp by Canada Post.
The new cent issue will be available in June, in an eight pack with stamps honouring Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Ginette Reno, and another musician whose name Canada Post is still keeping under cover. The style of the stamps will be similar, though each musician has a say in whether the photograph used is old or new. Gordon Lightfoot, honoured in , went for a year-old album-cover image, while Bryan Adams chose a recent self-portrait.
We'll have to wait till May 27 to see what Robbie picked, though I'm betting he chose a recent image by his pal, rock photographer Anton Corbijn.